Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan

Every so often a novelist’s first book blazes across the literary firmament, inspiring “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from all who read it. Cold Mountain comes to mind, along with Snow Falling on Cedars – two books that received glowing reviews and wide-spread acclaim.

Sometimes a writer takes several books to hit their literary stride, and after slowly building a masterful command of literary writing, they take a sudden quantum leap forward with a book that out-shines anything they’d previously written. In my opinion, Ian McEwan fell into this category when he published Atonement. One reviewer said, “If God could write a novel…” while another stated that in 100 years it will still be read and considered a classic. They were right.

After reading all these stellar books, I ask myself the following questions: What the hell are they gonna do next? How in the world do they top this?

Harper Lee certainly knows the answer: They can’t.

Still, I was eager to read McEwan’s follow-up to Atonement, but was only able to muddle through the first few pages of Saturday. After that bitter disappointment, I had no intention of reading On Chesil Beach - not until literary agent, Nathan Bransford, convinced me.

Chesil’s a pint-sized novella, a worthy read that at first seemed more like a character study than a fully-realized story....until I came to the end. The plot: two virgins have a disastrous wedding night. But this is so much more than just a Masters and Johnson case file on sexual dysfunction.

Some reviewers pooh-pooh’d the idea that anyone would be a virgin, let alone a dysfunctional one, at the start of the 1960’s. These reviewers cited the Stones, the Beatles and The Pill as proof positive that everybody experienced the sexual revolution. Cleary, Mr. McEwan addresses all these naysayers (did they even read the book? in particular this part?):

“The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tales about America. The blues he heard at the Hundred Club suggested to Edward that all around him, just out of sight, men of his age were leading explosive, untiring sex lives, rich with gratifications of every kind. Pop music was bland, still coy on the matter, films were a little more explicit, but in Edward’s circle the men had to be content with telling dirty jokes, uneasy sexual boasting and boisterous camaraderie driven by furious drinking, which reduced further their chances of meeting a girl. Social change never proceeds at an even pace.”

The author paints a complex and detailed portrait of two people whose lifestyle and background preclude jumping into the drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll fray; 1962’s rural Turville Heath and cloistered Oxford are not the same place as 1968 London. The relationship between the two main characters: up-market violinist, Florence Ponting, and down-trodden grounds-keeper-turned-historian, Edward Mayhew, reminded me of the English characters, Chris Nolan and Chloe Hewett from Woody Allen’s film, Match Point – the motivation and backgrounds of the husbands-to-be are quite similar, all the way down to the calculating tennis games with their much more well-off and sophisticated in-laws (am I the only one to notice the resemblance in plots?). The bride’s appeal seems to lie more in what she represents than what she is – not exactly the main ingredient for a loving marriage for Florence and Edward:

“In fact, he was entranced, he lived in a dream. During that warm summer, his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting – the huge white rooms and their dustless wooden floors warmed by sunlight, the cool green air of the tangled garden breathed into the house through open windows, the scented blossoms of North Oxford, the fresh hardback books piled on tables in the library – the new Iris Murdoch (she was Violet’s friend), the new Nabokov, the new Angus Wilson – and his first encounter with a stereophonic record player.”

But unlike Allen’s film, there’s no third-party sultry siren to muck up the bride and groom’s future; McEwan’s characters do that just fine on their own.

The author beautifully lays the groundwork for the final scene by revealing both characters’ damaged and loveless relationships with their mothers. Flo’s mom is a prickly, Oxford don, and a brainy, brittle woman devoid of affection for anyone. Edward’s mother barely functions due to a horrific brain injury suffered while pregnant with twin girls; their house is pig-sty due to her inability to focus on, or complete the most basic housekeeping task. Clearly this isolates Edward from his school friends and later, girls – although Florence, to her credit, never once disdains or looks on askance at the squalor of her future-in-laws.

Flo’s mother, Mrs. Ponting, made the choice to grin-and-bear the demands of marriage and motherhood while pursuing her true love – her career as a lecturer and college professor, whereas her equally ambitious musician daughter, coming of age on the cusp of the sexual revolution, wrestles with the still limited choices of her generation. As a character written in the tradition of Henry James himself, a man who enjoyed the comforts and joys of friends and family while at the same time preferring the solitude he believed was required to pursue the artist’s life, Flo’s plan as woman and an artist is to perpetuate the charade of a marriage, and therefore garner the social position expected of her while at the same time putting all her energy and passion into her music career.

Edward’s lack of sexual experience stems from the time and place he lives in, as well as the dysfunctions and deprivations of his own family. It comes as no surprise that he’s a rather over-eager groom on his wedding night, or that the chaste Florence is anxious about losing her virginity. The surprise comes from Flo’s proposal to Edward
when they come together on Chesil Beach: that of an unconsummated marriage-in-name-only, with Edward given the freedom that most men dream of – carte blanche to sleep with whomever he pleases while Florence chases after the fame and glory of the concert stage.What did Edward chose? What were the consequences of his reaction to Flo’s flight from the marriage bed? Reader, I’ll leave it up to you to find out. While Chesil – (nor any other book for that matter) lives up to the perfection and glory of Atonement, I’m grateful to Nathan Bransford’s recommendation to give this novella a second chance.

Of course, if you want to read a truly great novel about a woman forced to chose between a career in the arts and the conventions of marriage, read Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark.